It was a small sprig of a plant that caught my eye in the greenhouse of Sea Island Savory Herbs on Johns Island.
The herb farm was part of the Lowcountry Tour that my dad and I went on in the spring. It was the first stop, actually, and we were walking through the greenhouses looking at the wide array of herbs available.
Some I already had in my garden at home: basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, garlic chives, mint and French lavender. There was one, though, that stood out.
Fuzzy, rounded leaves and more succulent-looking than what you think of when you think of herbs, that’s what was labeled Cuban oregano ( Plectranthus amboinicus).
I had to have one.
Over the summer, I’ve watched the plant grow from a 2-inch sprig to fill a 12-inch pot.
Occasionally, I’ve nipped a leaf off the main plant and turned it in my hand, marveling at the essential oils spreading through the veins and darkening the underside of the leaf as I pinched it.
My dilemma has been finding ways to use this herb in cooking.
A quick web search says that it can be substituted for regular oregano in dishes, but I’m not so sure. To me, the aroma is more floral and minty than “regular” oregano, which to me has a slightly more woody note. And Cuban oregano has a higher essential oil content than regular Greek-style oregano.
According to some gardening/cooking sites, the leaves can be boiled as a tea for easing coughs, sore throats and indigestion.
The plant also goes by other names: Spanish thyme, oregano brujo (Puerto Rico), Indian borage, hung chanh (Vietnam), Mexican thyme and Mexican mint, to name just a few. It is part of the coleus family, originating in India and tending to grow just fine in warm weather. Luckily I planted this in a pot, so when the temperatures cool down, I can bring it inside to winter-over.
I’ve found a couple of ingredient-specific recipes for Cuban oregano ... I’ll marinate a goat chop or two in the green sauce before grilling and I’m working to perfect an after-work adult beverage using gin and/or vodka.
The aroma of the crushed leaves causes me to think that one or two leaves muddled in the bottom of a glass with a spritz of lemon soda and two parts vodka to one part gin would be a fine combination ... like a modified Vesper (the original drink of James Bond).
Just a few more attempts and I’ll let you know ... for sure.
2 Tablespoons olive oil
2 medium onions, chopped fine
1 medium-size yellow bell pepper, chopped
5 cloves garlic, crushed
2 pounds grounds beef
Salt and pepper to taste
4 leaves Cuban oregano, chopped fine
1/3 cup ketchup
8 ounces tomato paste
In a large pan over medium heat, lightly saute onion and bell pepper in olive oil. Add garlic, stir. Add ground beef and saute until browned.
Drain any fat from the pan. Add salt, pepper, Cuban oregano, ketchup and tomato paste to meat and stir to mix well. Cover pan and simmer for 40 minutes.
Picadillo can be served warm over yellow or white rice or with cooked black beans (traditional methods) or as a filling for tacos, empanadas and enchiladas.
5 leaves of Cuban oregano
1 bunch flat-leaf parsley
2 sprigs fresh thyme
2 sprigs cilantro
4 cloves garlic
4 Tablespoons lime juice (or lemon juice or white vinegar)
6 aji dulce peppers (or pimento pepper or one hot pepper of your choice, with seeds)
Place all ingredients in a food processor and puree, adding a small amount of water or wine if needed. Store in a sealed glass jar in the refrigerator for up to one week.
Use as marinade for pork, chicken, goat or shrimp.
Cuban Oregano Bhajis
8-10 Cuban oregano tips (the first four sets of leaves on a stem)
1/2 cup chickpea flour
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon tumeric powder
Vegetable oil for frying
Rinse Cuban oregano leaves and allow to air dry
Whisk together the chickpea flour, cumin, paprika and tumeric and add enough water to form a thick batter.
Heat oil to 350 degrees. When hot, add one teaspoon of the hot oil to the batter and whisk well.
Dip oregano into the batter and gently shake to remove excess.
Gently drop battered oregano into hot oil and fry until golden brown.
Drain fried oregano on paper towels and serve with chutney.